Lincoln Chafee’s metric bid is the wrong fight

Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee is running for president.
Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee is running for president.(AP)

It’s hard for a Democratic presidential contender to wrest attention away from Hillary Clinton. But former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee, who entered the primary race last week, managed to win some headlines with one quixotic proposal: converting the United States to the metric system.

Going metric is hardly a new cry; scientists and business leaders have long argued that the switch would help the United States stay economically competitive. In 1975, Congress passed a law to coordinate a switch — but it was voluntary, and swiftly fizzled. Chafee, too, cites economic reasons for the change, though he concedes it would carry a short-term cost. But he also claims that a switch to metric would represent a “bold embrace of internationalism,” a way to earn global respect. Myanmar and Liberia, he pointed out, are the only other countries that haven’t officially adopted a metric standard.

That may be true, but it makes for a tough political argument in a country that, not so long ago, clung to “freedom fries.” It also may be unnecessary. The metric system has, in fact, made substantial inroads here; nonscientist layfolk run 5Ks and measure centimeters on rulers. The Common Core curriculum standards, adopted by most states, call for teaching of metric units in addition to the familiar US “customary” units. And any business that deals in international trade is likely to be using metric, or suffering the consequences. The most compelling arguments for using metric alone have to do with public safety; some cite an increased danger of confusing medicine doses when both metric and standard measurements are used. But it’s easier to press for industry-specific labeling requirements than to make an entire country drop its embrace of the tablespoon or pound.

There are, in fact, more troubling ways that the United States remains an international outlier. For instance, most other developed countries guarantee some amount of paid sick leave for workers, and the United States shares honors with Papua New Guinea as the only country not to offer paid maternity leave. Chafee has a good track record here: In 2013, he signed a bill that made Rhode Island one of the few states to offer paid family leave to care for a newborn or a sick relative. As a Democratic primary issue, that might not set him apart from the crowd. But in a nation where most rulers are already marked with centimeters, it’s a far more important use of political capital.